Death and Taxes

Matthew 17.24-27

When they reached Capernaum, the collectors of the temple tax came to Peter and said, “Does your teacher not pay the temple tax?” He said, “Yes, he does.” And when he came home, Jesus spoke of it first, asking, “What do you think, Simon? From whom do kings of the earth take toll or tribute? From their children or from others?” When Peter said, “From others,” Jesus said to him, “Then the children are free. However, so that we do not give offense to them, go to the sea and cast a hook; take the first fish that comes up; and when you open its mouth, you will find a coin; take that and give it to them for you and me.”

The church is weird.

It is weird for a lot of reasons, least of all being that people like you and me are part of it.

The church is weird, at least according to the world, because we worship a crucified God and boldly proclaim that death has been defeated in the person of Jesus Christ.

Add to that the fact that we dump water on babies telling them they’ve been baptized into Jesus’ death and every month we proudly eat Jesus’ body and drink his blood… I don’t know if things could get much stranger.

Last Sunday was Easter which, or course, is one of the more bizarre Sundays in the church year. We looked around the sanctuary and saw people we’ve never seen before, we remembered the shadow of the cross from Good Friday, and we triumphantly sang “Christ Is Alive!”

And yet here we are, a week later, on the other side of the resurrection story. We, like the disciples before us, are experiencing the whiplash of discovering a strange new world that has been changed, for good, by Jesus Christ. The resurrection is the event that shatters all of our previous expectations and assumptions and it is the lens by which we read the entirety of the Bible.

As I said last week, if the Easter story were not included in the holy scriptures then we would’ve thrown out our Bibles a long time ago.

But now we jump back into the story, back into the ministry of Jesus. We have pressed the rewind button to re-enter the realm of the bizarre.

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This act of worship through which we proclaim the Word of the Lord is often nothing more than entering the strange new world of the Bible and hoping that we can find our way through together.

Or, to put it another way, if you thought Jesus rising from the dead was crazy, just check this out…

A bunch of tax collectors went up to Peter as soon as the disciples reached Capernaum and asked, “Hey, does your guy pay the temple tax or not?” Peter said, “Yeah, of course he does.”

But then when he got to the house where Jesus was staying, Jesus brought it up before Peter got a chance to open his mouth. “What do you think Pete… Who do the wealthy and powerful tax? Do they take money from their own children or from others?” 

Peter replied, “From other people.”

So Jesus said to him, “Then the kids are free to do as they please. But, we don’t want to scandalize the collectors of the temple tax, so why don’t you head on down to the sea and go fishing. When you hook your first fish, look inside it’s mouth, you will find enough money to pay for you and me.”

What?!

This feels incomprehensible. And, upon reading the story, it’s no wonder that the disciples were such a group of bumbling fools. How can we blame them when Jesus tells the chief disciple that he can find his tax payment inside of a fish’s mouth? 

Over and over again in the gospel narratives, the disciples struggle to make sense of what they see and hear from Jesus. Sure they witness miracles, and experience profound truths, but they are also bombarded with a strange new reality straight from the lips and actions of their Lord.

He was weird.

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The weirdness is as its fullest when Jesus comes to the realization, or perhaps he has it the whole time, that the kingdom of God is inextricably tied up with his own exodus, his death and resurrection. 

The parables, therefore, are seen in their fullest light on this side of the resurrection. I have made the case before that for as much as we want the parables to be about us, they are about Jesus. That’s one of the reasons that Jesus sternly ordered the disciples not to tell anyone what they saw or heard until he had been raised from the dead.

Of course, upon first glance, the money in the mouth of the fish might not sound like a parable. For whenever we hear the word parable we are quick to jump to the good samaritan or the prodigal son – we conjure up in our minds the stories Jesus told.

But this is a parable that Jesus lives out.

What makes it parabolic is that it points to something greater than its parts and it leaves us with more questions than answers.

The tax collectors were out to find the temple tax, the didrachma. It was a two-drachma tax expected of all Jews and it amounted to about two day’s pay. But they weren’t simply looking to collect – they are asking a question to discern what kind of person this Jesus really was. 

“Does he pay the temple tax?” is but another version of “Does he follow the Law?”

Peter, ever eager to jump in without thinking much about what he was saying, assures the collectors that Jesus in fact pays his taxes and then he returns to the house.

And Jesus, who was not privy to the conversation, questions Peter upon his arrival, “Who do the powerful take their taxes from? Their own families, or from others?”

And Peter responds accordingly, “From others.” 

And that was good enough for Jesus who says, “Then the children are free.”

Before we even get to the miraculous and monetized fish, Jesus is establishing something remarkably new through the spoken truth of this parabolic encounter. Jesus and his followers in whatever the new kingdom will be are under no obligations to the old order represented by those in power. 

The former things are passing away and Jesus is doing a new thing.

The children are free from taxes; they don’t have to do anything. Which, to our Americans ears starts to sound a little disconcerting. Some of us will immediately perk up in our pews when we hear the news that Jesus is apparently against paying taxes, while others of us begin to squirm when we think about what would happen if we all stopped paying our taxes.

But that’s not what’s going on here.

Parable Definition

Jesus and his disciples do not have to do anything because they are God’s children, and only God has the right to tax God’s creatures. This wasn’t money for public school education, or for infrastructure repairs, or national defense. This was for the Temple, the religious establishment, the same Temple that Jesus eventually says he has come to destroy!

But then he moves on from words alone to the action of the parable, the part that, if we’re honest, leaves us even more troubled than with questions about our taxes. 

Jesus says, “But you know what Pete, we shouldn’t scandalize the tax collectors so go catch a fish, and inside you will find a coin that will be enough.”

Interestingly, the coin in greek is a STATER which was worth exactly four drachmas, which would perfectly cover Peter and Jesus’ contribution.

And how to the temple tax collectors respond to the aquatic audit? 

The Bible doesn’t tell us.

What about Peter’s response to actually catching a fish with a coin in its mouth?

The Bible doesn’t tell us.

All we’re given is the parable.

Jesus knows that his own death will be at the heart of the new order, the kingdom of God. And in this strange and quixotic moment, he shows how free he and his disciples are from the old political and religious and messianic expectations and decides to make a joke about the whole thing.

And for the living Lord this is nothing new. He was known for breaking the rules, and eating with sinners, and questioning the authorities. But now, in this story, Jesus lives and speaks into the truth of his location being outside all the programs created by those with power to maintain their power.

He is free among the dead.

He is bound to the last, least, and lost.

The coin in the fish’s mouth is the great practical joke of God’s own creation against the powers and principalities. 

It’s but another version of saying, “You think all of this religious stuff is going to save you? You think your morality and your ethics and your economics are enough? Even the fish in the sea have a better chance than all of you!”

The children are free.

Free from what? The children are free from the religious forms of oppression and expectation. Whatever religion was trying to do during the time of Jesus, and sadly during our time as well, cannot be accomplished by our own religious acts but can be and are accomplished in the mystery of Jesus’ death and resurrection.

The children are free.

The parable of the coin in the fish’s mouth is far greater than an episode by the sea or even a treatment on the levying of taxes. It is a profound declaration of freedom.

But herein lies one of the greatest challenges for us.

Because when we hear the word freedom we bring all sorts of our own definitions to that word. We hear “freedom” and we see red, white, and blue. We talk about freedom in terms of getting to do, and say, and believe whatever we want without repercussions.

But Jesus brings a radically different version of freedom – freedom from religion; freedom from the Law.

Religion, in the many ways it manifests itself, often only has one thing to say: people like you and me need to do something in order to get God to do something. We need only be good enough, or faithful enough, or merciful enough, until we tip the scales back in our favor. But this kind of religious observance, which is most religious observance, traps us in a game that we will always and forever lose.

It’s bad news.

But Jesus comes to bring Good News. 

I have come not to abolish the law but to fulfill the law.

Again and again in the gospels Jesus stands against what the established religious order was doing and trying to do.

The Devil offers him power over the Temple during the temptations and Jesus refuses.

Jesus rebukes the hard and fast rules of not eating with sinners, and of not helping others on the sabbath.

After he enters Jerusalem, with the cross ever present on the horizon, he marches straight into the temple and flips over all the tables of the money-changers.

And even in his death, as he hangs on the cross, the veil of the Temple is torn into two pieces.

The old has fallen away and something new has arrived in its place. 

Jesus says he doesn’t want to scandalize those trapped in the Law and by religious observance but his cross and resurrection are fundamentally scandalous. We are no longer responsible for our salvation. We do not have to be the arbiters of our own deliverance.

We are free!

Truly and deeply free!

Jesus has erased the record that stood against us and chose to nail it to his cross!

Jesus has taken the “Gone Fishin’” sign and hung it over the doorpost of the ridiculous religious requirements that we have used against one another and ourselves.

Jesus has come to bring Good News.

The children are free. Amen. 

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A Reminder For Those Attending Annual Conference

Psalm 100.3

Know that the Lord is God. It is he that made us, and we are his; we are his people, and the sheep of his pasture.

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In a few days United Methodists from all over the state of Virginia will gather in Hampton for Annual Conference. It is the conference wide meeting for clergy and lay representatives so that we might have worship and parliamentary deliberations in order to discern the will of God. Highlights will include the Service of Ordering Ministry when new candidates will be blessed for ministry, our new(ish) Bishop will address the conference as a whole for the first time, and we will hear from all of the vibrant ministries taking place across the conference. However, there will come a time when we descend into the depths of Roberts Rules of Order, individuals will speak into the PA system just to hear the sound of their own voice, and it will feel a whole lot more like a shareholders meeting than the gathering of God’s people.

And as I have been preparing for Annual Conference this year by reading through the Book of Reports and praying for our denomination, I felt compelled to write the following reminder for anyone attending conference this year (and frankly for any Christian):

On one of my first Sundays at St. John’s 4 years ago, I sat with the Church Council in the Social Hall for the very first time. We gathered that afternoon in hopes of communing with one another such that we could discern what God was calling us to do together. And I started the meeting with this story…

On my first day of seminary the dean stood up in front of the entire incoming class and gave a 45-minute lecture on the ethics of the New Testament. It was interesting for the first ten minutes and then most of us lost track of where he was going. We struggled to listen but everything was so brand new that most of us were more captivated by the architecture in the sanctuary than what was being said from the pulpit. But he ended with these words, words I will never forget, and words I hope you will never forget.

He said, “Why are you here? Some of you think you’re here because you want to teach in college one day, some of you are here because you believe you can save the church, and some of you are here simply because you love the bible. But why are you here? Now, I want you all to pull out a small piece of paper. You might, and probably will, forget most of what I’ve said today, but this is the most important lesson you will ever learn as Christians. I want you to take your piece of paper and tape it somewhere you will see every single day. You can put in on the mirror in your bathroom, or on your computer, or even on your bible, I don’t care where it is just make sure you see it every single day. And on your piece of paper I want you to write the following words: ‘It’s about God, stupid.’”

Wherever you are when you read this reminder, I encourage you to find a piece of paper and write down those same words: It’s about God, stupid. Tape it up in your hotel room, fasten it to the front of your book of reports, put it on your name tag, just do whatever it takes to encounter those words while attending Annual Conference. The UMC does not exist to serve the needs of those already in it, it does not exist to further perpetuate the bureaucracy in which it finds too much meaning, it does not exist to do whatever it takes to keep doors open on Sunday mornings; The UMC exists because it’s all about God!

God is the one who first breathed life into John Wesley and sent him on a course that would forever reorient the fabric of the church. God is the one who breathed life into all of the churches of the Virginia Conference, who empowers the pastors to proclaim the Word from their respective pulpits, who shows up in the bread and in the cup at the table. God is the one who gathers us together for a time of holiness, who moves in the words we sing, who rests in the spaces between us when we worship, who calls us to serve the kingdom instead of serving ourselves.

And so, no matter what you’re thinking or how you’re feeling this year for Annual Conference, remember it’s all about God.

inom8GpY

 

The Kingdom of Chaos

Mark 4.30-32

He also said, “With what can we compare the kingdom of God, or what parable will we use for it? It is like a mustard seed, which, when sown upon the ground, is the smallest of all the seeds on earth; yet when it is sown it grows up and becomes the greatest of all the shrubs, and puts forth large branches, so that the birds of the air can make nests in its shade.”

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Today marks the second part of our July Sermon Series on The Power of the Parables. A favorite rhetorical device of Jesus’, a parable is a story that illustrates a lesson or principle usually without explanation. They are simple and life-sized with familiar characters and they are supposed to drive us crazy.

Over the centuries the parables have become so watered down through the church that they no longer carry the same weight and punch that they once did. The familiar parables are beloved to us, The Feast, The Mustard Seed, The Prodigal Son, The Good Samaritan, but during the time of Jesus they were frustrating and confusing. During this month we will do our best to recover this sense of strangeness and encounter the power of the parables.

 

 

The stories that Jesus tells about the kingdom of God are down to earth, literally. The kingdom is not some esoteric arena in the great by-and-by, but as close as a wedding feast, or a fishing net, or even a mustard bush.

A mustard bush is a strange thing. It develops from the smallest of seeds and grows like a weed choking out everything else. It is the kind of plant that farmers fear. The seeds are so tiny that if they get caught up in a group of others being sowed in a field, it can destroy the planned crop and replace it with mustard bushes.

One of the main points of Jesus’ parables is the fact that they are common stories that nearly everyone can appreciate or picture. But are we, today, familiar with a mustard seed or a mustard bush? I went out on Wednesday to a couple local plant nurseries, and I went to a couple hardware stores, and I found nothing. Not one bag of mustard seeds. Not one single mustard plant.

For the first century Jews and Gentiles this parable was as familiar as could be. Jewish law made it illegal to plant a mustard seed in a garden because they knew it would grow and grow and eventually take over the entire space. But for us today, we only know the mustard we buy in grocery stories. So, perhaps we need a new parable. Maybe we need a new comparison to what the kingdom of God is like. One that still holds true to the reality of a mustard seed but also resonates with our understanding of the world.

Jesus also said, “With what can we compare the kingdom of God, or what parable will we use for it? It is like one of those computer viruses that we receive in an email attachment from our grandmother. At first it seems harmless “Click here to learn the secret to weight-loss” or “Click here to see a video of a monkey playing a piano” and then before we know what hit us it spreads and spreads through our entire computer corrupting every file before sending the same email out to everyone in our address book.

Jesus also said, “With what can we compare the kingdom of God, or what parable will we use for it? It is like the flu, we try to stop it from spreading by receiving flu shots and preventing people from visiting others in the hospital, but once it takes hold it spreads through everything we touch until it reaches the next person and the next person and the next person.

Jesus also said, “With what can we compare the kingdom of God, or what parable will we use for it? It is like a video posted on the Internet of a black man being shot by a police officer during a routine traffic stop. At first we try to scroll past because we know it is too graphic, too awful, too real, but we can’t help ourselves from watching. The longer we watch the more people we think about that need to see the video, we start to think about how the whole world needs to see this injustice so that justice might rain down like water. So we send it out for everyone to see until something changes.

If Jesus showed up in church today and shared any of those parables with us, how would we respond? I’d tell him that he is crazy, that he has no idea how no idea how the church is supposed to work, and that his vision of the kingdom does not match with mine.

Jesus’ parable of the mustard seed is one that confuses and creates frustration precisely because our version of the kingdom is different than the kingdom inaugurated in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

ST. PAUL, MN - JULY 07: A couple hold a sign protesting the killing of Philando Castile outside the Governor's Mansion on July 7, 2016 in St. Paul, Minnesota. Castile was shot and killed the previous night by a police officer in Falcon Heights, MN. (Photo by Stephen Maturen/Getty Images)

The kingdom of God strikes in ways that we almost cannot see, and certainly not in ways that we can expect. Like an idea popping up in the mind, it refuses to be stifled and it begins to spread out through our conversations and our writing. Ideas like “war is wrong” or “homophobia is wrong” or “the indiscriminate killing of black men and women” is wrong. Those ideas spread like wildfire and at some point they cease to be ideas and instead transform into revolutions. The original thought tangles in the mind and heart of the revolution and people become so moved that they are willing to die so long as that original idea will continue to spread.

More often than not, we know what we want the kingdom of God to look like and we know what we want the church to look like. We want clear lines to be drawn so that we know who is in and who is out, what is allowed and what is forbidden, what is black and what is white.

But then Jesus gives us this two-verse parable with the mustard seed – the tiniest symbol of how God is forever invading our ordinary and orderly sense of things. The mustard seed is there in plain sight but hidden by our ignorance. We overlook it in the fields, in the church, in our lives, and then it sprouts into the greatest of all the shrubs.

Since January of this year at least 123 black Americans have been shot and killed by police. This week saw a black man gunned down outside of a convenience store for selling CDs and a black man gunned down during a routine traffic stop for having a broken taillight. The saddest part of these stories is that they have become part of our common vernacular and experience of black culture. For a time we can remember the names of the individuals killed, names like Eric Garner and Michael Brown and Tamir Rice and Freddie Gray, but now the list has grown so long that the names begin to bleed together.

And how do we feel? Are we outraged? Or are we apathetic? Are we disgusted? Or are we disinterested? Are we on fire for change? Or do we want things to stay the same?

And the death of black men and women is a small fraction, or perhaps the mustard seed, of the larger picture of racial inequality in our country.

People of color make up about 30% of the total population in the U.S. but they account for 60% of those who are imprisoned. 1 out of every 3 black men can expect to go to prison at some point in their lifetime. Once convicted, black offenders receive sentences that are nearly 20% longer than white offenders for the same crime.

In preschools across the country black students account for 18% of the total number enrolled but make up 48% of preschoolers with multiple out-of-school suspensions. Preschoolers! In elementary, middle, and high schools across the country, black students are expelled at 3 times the rate of white students.

And 11am on Sunday morning is still, without a doubt, the most segregated hour in the United States.

The kingdom of God is like a mustard seed, the smallest of all the seeds, but when it is planted it grows into the grandest and largest of all the shrubs and puts forth branches so that all the birds of the air can find rest in its shade.

The kingdom of God is not like the kingdom of America where people are still persecuted because of the pigmentation of their skin, where immigrants are treated as second-class citizens, where members of the LGBTQ community are murdered because of their identity; where police are attacked in retaliation for events in other parts of the country.

On Thursday evening, during a peaceful protest in Dallas, Texas, five law enforcement officers were killed and six others were injured. Snipers were set up in strategic elevated areas and sent the downtown area into chaos as bullets continued to fly back and forth. It is unclear what the exact motives of the attack might be, though it is clear that it is somehow connected with the recent shootings of black men in other parts of the country.

Black men and women are shot and killed by the police. Black communities respond in rage and protest. Police are shot and killed by individuals whose anger manifested itself into violence and destruction.

What are we to do? Turn off the television because of the unending violence? Shrug off the waves of death because at least its not happening in Staunton? Fall to our knees in prayer that we might be transformed into a people of peace?

Today we grieve and mourn all the lives lost at the hands of the destructive power of death. We lift up our fists and rail against the prejudices that result in black persecution and police assassination. We demand answers from the Lord for why things like this continue to happen.

People take part in a rally on April 29, 2015 at Union Square in New York, held in solidarity with demonstrators in Baltimore, Maryland demanding justice for an African-American man who died of severe spinal injuries sustained in police custody. AFP PHOTO/Eduardo Munoz Alvarez (Photo credit should read EDUARDO MUNOZ ALVAREZ/AFP/Getty Images)

That’s the power of a parable like the mustard seed; it strikes us as something true whenever we hear it. A detail will emerge that we’ve never thought about and we realize that Jesus is still speaking to us through the story. The power of a parable is its ability to convey a deep and profound truth about Jesus in the midst of our lives today. The power of a parable is its ability to show us that God’s kingdom is strange, unexpected, and beautiful.

The kingdom of God, like the mustard seed, like a viral video, like a revolution, invades the cultivated soil of our certainties and creates something new. Hidden in plain sight, like words of a prayer, the seeds of faith grow in unexpected ways until what we thought we knew is transformed by our invasive and surprising God.

Our lives should transformed by the mustard seed quality of the kingdom of God when it stretches and reaches into every part of our existence and challenges us to be better. Not to pass the buck on to someone else, not to become apathetic to the tragedies of our time, but to be caught up in a revolution of the heart.

The power of the parable of the mustard seed is in the tiniest of seeds leading to a radical change. The mustard seed germinates and stretches out to grab hold of everything in its path. Oh that today the Lord would plant that mustard seed in our hearts, that the kingdom of God might grow and dwell among us, reaching out to everyone in our midst, that we might all believe that black lives matter, that we might believe that violence will only ever beget more violence.

We need that mustard seed. We need it planted deep into the soil of our souls, we need it to be cultivated, and we need it to grow with reckless abandon. We need a revolution of the heart, here and everywhere. Amen.